GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Greene County has the second largest population of the counties covered by the Northeast Regional Health Office but has one of the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates for the region.
“The percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated in Washington County is about double what it is here. That’s very concerning to me,” said Greene Co. Mayor Kevin Morrison. “We understand that there’s an extremely limited supply and amount here but it’s not being distributed equitably.”
The NERHO covers Carter, Greene, Hanock, Hawkins, Johnson, Unicoi, and Washington Counties. Sullivan County has its own health department.
Washington Co. has a population of 129,366 people. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 12,101 people, or 9.35% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Greene Co. has a population of 69,067 people, and only 3,307 people, or 4.79% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Johnson Co. is the only one that falls behind Greene in terms of vaccination rates with 4.34% of its population of 17,784 people receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. It is the smallest county covered by the NERHO.
“We’ve vaccinated some of our 1a1 folks three weeks ago, that’s the only appreciable amount of vaccine that we’ve received,” Morrison said. “We have a decent system in place as far as getting people signed up, having an ample line of very willing individuals…but what I hope comes out of this is somewhat more of a recognition to not leave for instance communities behind.”
The Tennessee Department of Health’s website shows Greene Co. as having vaccines available but Morrison says that’s not the case and he wants to know why other counties in the region have enough vaccines to welcome more than their residents.
“Sullivan County and the Sullivan County Health Department has since put out several media releases saying that people can come to the Bristol Dragway and be vaccinated. You don’t have to be a resident of Sullivan County to do that,” said Morrison. “People are asking me the tough questions of well ‘Mayor, why can’t Greene County afford to do that or be able to do that when they can do it in other places?'”
On Monday, the county received 200 Pfizer vaccines according to Morrison, before that he says the shipments have been small since the county received 600 doses “about three weeks ago.”
“That vaccine wasn’t initially intended for the health department so that vaccine is being supplied by either Ballad Health or it’s coming from a different distribution facility over to the Northeast Tennessee health department to be re-distributed to these counties that are now asking these tough questions,” said Morrison. “Anybody in the health department umbrella was not meant to receive any Pfizer vaccine because of the logistics requirements needed to keep it…that was not originally intended for us but found somewhere else so, that’s somewhat concerning.”
Robin Mendelson is a registered home health nurse and one of those in Greene County desperately waiting to get a vaccine.
“I’ve tried to call Greene County Health Department multiple times and they told me that they didn’t have the vaccine. So, finally, in the beginning, I went and I stood in line to get the vaccine and I was like 20 cars back and then they shut down the line and there haven’t been any vaccines, for now, four weeks,” said Mendelson. “My husband is disabled and he has cancer so it’s important for me to be able to bring home a paycheck and that’s not happening.”
She went to Sullivan Co. for a vaccine but the line was too long or had been cut off before she got there.
“We all want Covid to go away and the only way to make Covid go away is to social distance, wear your mask and get yourself vaccinated and the vaccine part is just not happening,” Mendelson said. “The rollout of the vaccines, it should be a little bit smoother and go a little bit better than it’s been going and it’s very frustrating not knowing where to turn or where to go.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, Ballad Health’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer, Jamie Swift, said the system gave 3,000 doses to Sullivan County.
“975 of those were given back. We do have 975 that’s going to the NE region this week… that’s the first they’ve asked for it,” Swift said. So, we’re certainly in contact with every health department to make sure that if we have extra, we can redistribute.”
Exactly where those vaccines will go and when hasn’t been determined.
“It’s a good thing that we’re distributing and getting the vaccine in folks’ arms… that’s not the issue. The issue is the perceived inequitability between other communities and ours,” Morrison said. “We will find the volunteers to be able to give this vaccine to the people that need it in the order in which they need it. We just want the process to be fair.”
No one at Ballad Health was available Tuesday for more information about how many vaccines they have received and distributed. The Tennessee Department of Health was also unable to process our request for an interview about distribution.